Understanding its diverse literary genres can allow for a more fruitful reading of it
By Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM
Most people, when they think of the Bible, think of it as a book of great importance, which it is. It is also a rather complex book, or set of books, rather, that can be easily misinterpreted and misrepresented. When asked whether or not the Bible is historical, the question that must be asked is: which part?
Bishop Robert Barron is always quick to point out that the best approach to understanding the Bible and how to read it is the same one we take at the library. There are different sections in the library containing different types of books. The same is true in the Bible. There are different sections within the Bible, each section with its own books. There are also diverse literary genres in the various biblical books and sometimes within the same book itself; these are all placed side by side within the one binding of the Bible. Instead of one book, there are 73. Each of those books has its own historical formation and its own story to tell. The important thing to remember is that one does not read every book or every literary genre in the same way.
For example, the poetry of the Song of Songs is very different from the liturgical and sacrificial instructions of Leviticus. If I tried to read Leviticus as allegorical love poetry, I would not get very far. Likewise, the creation stories and the archetypal imagery and stories of the first chapters of Genesis are not the same as the history of David and Saul and the rise of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They have to be read with different literary lenses, so to speak. Otherwise, I can easily misunderstand the purpose and message of the book.
Again, a common question that comes up in this regard is about the historicity of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament. If we apply the contemporary standards of historical writing to the Bible, then it is clear that the Old Testament is not history. However, if we can accept that the biblical authors wrote history in a different way than we do, we can begin to accept the stories as historical, even though they are not written according to present-day standards.
The birth of Samuel, for example, need not be a part of the story of the foundations of the monarchy for the sake of the strict history of Israel. Without it, though, it is hard to explain the deference showed to him by all the people, including Saul and David. The figure of Samuel looms large in the story of the rise of Israel’s monarchy and from a literary point of view, he is hugely important. Perhaps a secular historian would see Samuel as inconsequential to the formation of the monarchy, but in the biblical understanding of history he is not.
There are other passages in the Old and New Testaments that have a stronger historical flavor, such as the cursory lists of the regnal years of the kings of Israel and Judah with the brief descriptions attached to each king. There are also passages in the Acts of the Apostles where the author gives a detailed account of the places traveled by Paul and himself. He names ancient ports and cities, along with descriptions of their naval adventures. Paul, in his letters, also gives accounts of his experiences as a Pharisee and then as a Christian apostle.
The Gospels, which tell about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, have sometimes been devalued as historical documents. The fact that they were written around 60-90 A.D., so close to the time Jesus lived, and that they give detailed information about the life, ministry, and death of Jesus should caution us against such a hasty dismissal of their value. In fact, reading the opening verses of the Gospel according to Luke can shed some light on what he was trying to do as he assembled his material and composed his Gospel account:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.”
Luke tells us that many people were writing about Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. The information about Jesus came from eyewitnesses to the events surrounding his life. Luke decided, after researching and speaking with various people, to write his own “orderly account” so that the reader of his Gospel would know the truth about what Jesus really did and taught. That, perhaps, is not history as we normally think of it, but it certainly does not preclude the contents of the Gospel from being historically accurate.
Developing a sensitivity to the diverse literary genres of the Bible can help clear up some of the confusion about the history it records and the stories it contains. It will allow for a fruitful reading of this document that is so critically important to understanding the history of Western civilization.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, is the director of the Office of Christian Formation for the Diocese of Knoxville. She also writes for SimplyCatholic.com, a ministry of Our Sunday Visitor. This column originally appeared at SimplyCatholic.com